LEIPZIG, Germany - If a pizza were delivered to your home by a drone, would you leave a tip?
The question may be absurd, but people in the U.S. and throughout the world may soon be using unmanned, remote control aircraft for all kinds of basic deliveries.
"We believe we can build a new paradigm of transportation," Andreas Raptopoulus, founder of a company known as Matternet, said Thursday during a presentation at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig Germany.
The use of drones by the military overseas, or police in U.S. cities, is highly controversial. But Raptopoulos thinks the unmanned aerial devices can save lives.
He has formed a company, Matternet, that aims to launch a fleet of drones around the world that can haul small amounts of freight by remote control, using tracking software to cover distances of several miles.
For example, he envisions soon being able to haul lab samples for HIV/AIDS testing in areas of Africa not served by good roads - and he says the remote control technology can haul a load of more than four pounds a distance of six miles for about 24 cents.
Raptopoulus didn't specifically suggest his innovation could be used to ship pepperoni pies across town. But he did acknowledge that the universe of uses for unmanned aircraft was seemingly endless.
His presentation, which was part of a panel discussion on innovative new ways to pay for transportation, drew accolades from the audience of about 200 people for its creativity.
Raptopoulus, who is based in Palo Alto, Calif., acknowledged that his concept faces hurdles in the U.S.
There are concerns about security, such as whether a drone deployed for an honest business opportunity could be hacked or sabotaged. Raptopoulus acknowledges those concerns, and says the key to keeping his system safe would be to protect the takeoff and landing sites, since the machines takeoff vertically like a toy helicopter.
The FAA is currently working on these issues, as its seeks to comply with a federal law calling for the agency to incorporate unmanned aircraft into the nation's airspace management by 2015.
There could be as many as 30,000 drones in the air by 2020, according to one FAA estimate. The result could be a $90 billion industry.
Drones are already used by police agencies across the U.S. Arlington police recently received FAA permission to fly a 58-inch drone for public safety purposes, including search and rescue missions and other eye-in-the-sky work. Arlington's unmanned aircraft is capable of moving 40 mph.
During the discussion, drones were held out as an example of a technology that, while controversial today, could soon win favor with politicians and the public because of their ability to do more good than harm.
Another panelist, Jonas Eliasson, a professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, used city bicycle programs as an example. Eliasson said elected leaders might oppose efforts to make more room on the roads for cycling, but that sentiment can change once the bikes are on the road.
"Things seem worse before you've tried them," Eliasson said. "The benefits look smaller. The losses look larger."
Gordon Dickson, 817 390 7796
Photo: Matternet founder Andreas Raptopoulus shows a slide image of one of his drones, which could be deployed to haul small amounts of freight in cities or jungles. (Photo by Gordon Dickson/Star-Telegram).